Can Faith and Institution Coexist?
I'll be honest right off the bat. I don't have a personal answer to that question. My gut instinct is that I am skeptical that it can. For those of you who have been following previous pieces I have published, you know that I use the terms 'faith' and 'religion' to mean entirely different and antithetical things. The common phrase, 'organized religion', just seems to fit perfectly with what inevitably happens when a once vibrant faith succumbs to the call to institutionalize itself. So is that the problem? Is faith allergic to formalized structure?
the three 'P's'
In a recent two part series, we saw how both organized government and religion can, without the proper safe guards, succumb to the allure of power and greed. But when it comes to faith, is there really any way to safeguard it from devolving into a moldy bureaucracy once institutions are introduced? So I began to tap into my inner propensity to sermonize and of course came up with three points that all started with the same letter. Each represents realities of institutions that, when introduced to faith, lead me to wonder if it is indeed impossible for the two to coexist. Those three 'P's' are POWER, PROPERTY, and PAYROLL. I feel like I spent a fair amount of time recently on power, so in this piece I want to briefly focus on property and payroll. Besides, I love how specific and practical they are to the every day life of religious institutions.
When it comes to property, I once drank the Kool-aid and as a result labored towards improving current church facilities or securing new and improved ones. I and my other fellow believers would qualify our zeal with a statement about how we knew that the 'church is really the people' and that this space is just a 'tool' for serving God's purposes in our community. But our relentless commitment to securing these brick and mortar instruments of Divine mission now makes those words feel just a little disingenuous. How do you guard the ideological purpose of a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple from the eventual obsession with preserving the space as a comfortable couch of the established congregation or as some kind of historical and artistic artifact? And according to one 2013 study, the price at that time to build an average size church building was close to three million dollars. Isn't that effectively storing up for ourselves "treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal"?
Then what about payroll? Man, is it nice to have someone who is paid to make sure that somehow faith stuff happens! O.K., that's perhaps a little unfair and cynical. I was a paid pastor for a good number of years, and I'd like to think that at least some of that time was spent furthering some genuine faith activity and growth. I'm now convinced that allot of it also just furthered a religious 'dog and pony show', but not all of it! But what about the challenge of maintaining an environment where spiritual leaders can lead when their livelihood is at stake? How do you avoid self-censoring when a spiritual leader knows that his or her conviction might lead the board to reconsider cutting their next paycheck?
the perfect storm and the 'circle of life'
When you combine these two--property and payroll, or a parish and its priest, a church and its pastor, a mosque and its imam, or a synagogue and its rabbi--you have, essentially, the identity of a religious community. Conversely, when you do not have these you have, in the minds of most congregants, the death of a parish, church, mosque or synagogue. No wonder members of a religious institution, large or small, grieve so deeply and go to such great lengths to avoid, if at all possible, the dissolution of their formal entity. But does this really have to be the case or is there another way?
Now maybe I am making too much out of all of this. Perhaps you are saying, "Oh Kirt, it's just the 'circle of life'!" I get that. And I don't think I am an anarchist. I do understand the helpfulness of some structure in living life together on this planet with businesses and governments and such. But still I wonder, if can we perhaps imagine a different way to exploring faith in community apart from incorporating, having keys and an alarm system, or professionalizing spiritual leadership? I don't know my friends. Like I said at the top, I don't have any answers here, only questions. One thing I am convinced of is that these are questions worth asking.